In this TV adaption of “American Gods”, brought to life by Bryan Fuller of “Hannibal” and Michael Green of “Kings”, Neil Gaiman’s story is transformed from an ambling picaresque into an ultra-stylish experiment in television storytelling.
[This review contains spoilers for the first season of the show. No book spoilers except at the very end, in a marked-off section.]
Right from the first episode, showrunners Fuller and Green set out a much more blatantly meta and self-aware vision for their take on the story. It begins with a man (Thoth, or “Mr. Ibis”, as he’s later revealed) visibly writing “Coming to America 813 CE” into a book, before starting to narrate a story whose visuals first appear reflected in his glasses (as waves of the ocean), before filling the screen outright. The artificiality of storytelling is the first thing the series focuses on, it’s an immediate signifier of the type of series it’s going to be – not one aiming to immerse viewers in a self-contained fantasy story, but a metafictional story examining the form and nature of stories themselves.
When Mr. Ibis is writing down the story, the story of Vikings coming to America, the episode is in the standard aspect ratio for television, 16:9. When Mr. Ibis’ story itself starts being presented in the episode, through visuals instead of just his narration, the episode shifts to a much narrower, more cinematic aspect ratio. The series is already playing with form and how stories work. The cinematic aspect ratio makes the segment seem grander and ties into the mythic nature of the story Mr. Ibis is telling. The ridiculous amount of arrows striking a Viking, and the extremely stylised usage of CGI blood (a technique Fuller also deployed on “Hannibal”) also work as embellishments indicating the artificiality of the story. It does not look real, because it’s not meant to look real – it’s a story.
Stories obviously have meaning and power, otherwise people wouldn’t be watching “American Gods” in the first place, and the series hints at the specific way it will tackle the idea of the meaning and power of storytelling in the last line of dialogue for the scene – “Over one hundred years later, when Leif the Fortunate, son of Erik the Red, would rediscover that land, he found his god waiting…along with his war”. The show, like the book, uses the conceit of the religion and culture immigrants bring with them to new lands manifesting as tulpa-like deities in physical form, reflecting the unique properties of how they are worshipped and thought of. This lets the show (as in the book) to explore all sorts of questions based around cultural shifts, immigration, theology, and, of course, storytelling itself.
Perhaps the clearest mission statement the show makes is, during the battle in the Viking prologue, a sword cresting above the scene’s aspect ratio, calling direct attention to the artificiality of the story, opening up all sorts of meta questions far more interesting than questions taking the scene on its own terms would have prompted. What ideology does the story promote? Who benefits from that sort of story being shared? What aspects of the story are more based in reality and history than others? Why would certain aspects change over time? The whole series encourages this approach not just of the “Coming to America” and “Somewhere in America” asides, but the entirety of the show itself.
Shifts in aspect ratio are common throughout the season. They are not always used just to distinguish between “main” story elements (like Shadow’s journey) and the anthology-esque scenes of various immigrants bringing their religions to America. Sometimes they’re used to indicate shifting states of reality for characters, like the way Shadow’s dreams tend to be in a cinematic aspect ratio.
Laura-centric episodes also shift away from the standard television 16:9 aspect ratio, perhaps to distinguish her storyline from Shadow’s, or to distinguish her life from her afterlife. The fourth episode stays in a cinematic aspect ratio up until Laura is resurrected, then it shifts into the 16:9 ratio used more with Shadow, perhaps an indicator that she’s rejoined Shadow’s world and is more invested in trying to share a “life” with him).
Other stylistic tricks are used to call attention to the artifice of the stories being told. Fuller brings back Brian Reitzell, the composer who also did Fuller’s previous series “Hannibal”, and his score is a constant presence in episodes, sometimes even to the point of drowning out dialogue. It’s a constant reminder that the series is a construction, an alarm against immersion, tying into the mythic nature of the series and its stories. One “Coming to America” segment is entirely animated, instead of being live-action. Forced perspective shots are used in the first episode where Bilquis absorbing a hapless man during sex is portrayed as her growing (or him shrinking) through visual trickery. In the third episode, Zorya Polunochnaya plucks the moon from the sky as a silver coin in another seamless visual trick.
Fuller brings back several collaborators (directors, cinematographers, etc.) from “Hannibal” who contributed massively to dreamlike nature of that series, and carry it through very successfully here. In some ways that sort of style feels even more at home in “American Gods”, a series encouraging self-aware playing with form, instead of just immersing viewers into insane and devolving mindsets, as in “Hannibal”.
Trickster god Anansi’s introductory scene in the second episode sees him shift between spider and human form depending on whether he’s sneaking around or trying to convince a group of slaves to sacrifice themselves out of belief in his words. In the season finale, Anansi “spins” another story to try and motivate Shadow and Mr. Wednesday into a certain activity – clearly he’s very well aware of how to use stories as manipulative and motivational tools.
Media, portrayed fantastically by Gillian Anderson, also ties in to ideas like the construction of narratives, adaptability of stories, and the way form impacts meaning. She never appears in any sort of “base” form, instead always emulating different famous characters and celebrities – Lucy Ricardo, David Bowie, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland’s “Hannah Brown” from “Easter Parade”. Like the creative team behind the show, she uses whatever form best suits the story she’s telling and the reactions she’s looking to provoke.
Media also calls attention to the artificial construction of stories in the most blatant meta ways of the series, like directly demonstrating shifting aspect ratios to Shadow, and distinctions in form like black-and-white and colour television. Much as she’s the mouthpiece for the New Gods, she also seems the mouthpiece for the show’s writers.
Fuller and his fellow “Hannibal” writers did tremendous work twisting and reconfigurating the source material for that series in new and creative ways, and while “American Gods” is more faithful to its source material than “Hannibal” was, massive divergences are still taken in surprising ways. Where the novel was an ambling picaresque genuinely uninterested in following fantasy plot conventions, the series follows more conventional character arcs (Laura “coming to life” in death, Shadow submitting himself to belief, Mad Sweeney trying to atone for his sins, etc.), but it also contorts itself into a sort of stealth anthology show.
Devoting twenty minutes (a third of the runtime!) of the finale to a Bilquis story with only some thematic relevance to the episode (and next to no plot relevance) is a very clear indicator that the team behind the show are at the very least equally as interested in using the show as a vehicle for anthology stories (the “Coming to America” and “Somewhere in America” segments) as they are the “main” narrative of Shadow’s journey and Mr. Wednesday’s brooding war.
Making Laura as central a character as Shadow was a fascinating choice, and Emily Browning embodies her depression and apathy very believably. The fourth episode depicted a decaying episode very, very well, and the way it recontextualised the earlier episodes (not only in the sense of Laura and Shadow’s relationship, but also Shadow’s lynching) tied perfectly into the idea of shifting and adapting stories, so central an idea to the show.
While Shadow is surrounded by Slavic, Nordic, and Germanic mythology and imagery, Laura is surrounded by Egyptian and Celtic lore and visuals. Shadow has his moon coin, Laura has her gold coin. He is the Moon, she is the sun. This allows for all sorts of interesting parallel narratives to be had between them, and I particularly enjoyed how Laura picked up the slack on the road trip narrative of the series when Shadow was in static locations. Using Emily Browning to portray Essie MacGowan in the seventh episode also tied into that idea of parallel narratives, as faithful Essie certainly did not have a perfect life, but died feeling enriched and fulfilled in her spirituality, whereas cynical Laura would despondently attempt suicide and eventually rage at Anubis to his face. Seeing her thoughts on faith and religion slowly shift over the course of the series, such as in her quiet observance of Salim praying, was fascinating, and not overplayed.
So much of the series is blatant and direct that those underplayed moments really interested me. The first episode tackles bigotry in such a way. A white supremacist is glanced in prison, but he shared no dialogue with Shadow. The Technical Boy doesn’t say anything racist towards Shadow, but as an avatar for the internet, one clearly styled in the trimmings of those obsessed with social media, the way he stands in for the anonymous dogpiling of the internet is fascinating. The space between the Technical Boy and Shadow in his limo shifts, perhaps playing with the idea of how distance and closeness is so often confused online (one may be thousands of miles away but still attack someone remarkably personally online).
The Technical Boy’s goons are literally faceless, their heads may as well be the Twitter egg that accompanies new accounts so often made to just spam and harass people online. In the fifth episode, the Technical Boy sarcastically dismisses the idea that his lynching of Shadow – a black man – could have any connection to race or bigotry. That evasive nature, coupled with the obvious bigotry of his actions, articulates a very common sort of discourse online.
The uncharacteristically frequent depiction of male nudity (in comparison to similar prestige genre shows) in a way that normalised it and also made the female nudity not feel as exploitative as it does when in isolation reminded me of how Neil Gaiman handed race in his “American Gods” spin-off sequel “Anansi Boys”, where chiefly only the race of white characters is remarked upon. The season is full of fascinating little clever touches like that, like the Mexican Jesus being killed by Vulcan bullets (ergo, Rome, as with the historical Jesus), and the season ending by Ostara literally “ending” a “season”. Another little touch I really liked was centred around what seemed to be a throwaway sequence of shots in the second episode. Mr. Wednesday blew a dandelion out a car window and the camera followed the dandelion rising up the clouds which turned to a lightning storm.
That paid off in the finale, as it was revealed that dandelions were important symbols of worship to Ostara, and a “dandelion storm” eventuated in striking down some of the New Gods’ lackeys.
I have plenty more thoughts on the season, but they spoil the book, so I’ve put a ton of space between this paragraph and those paragraphs with spoilers below. As for my ultimate thoughts on the season, I found it to be a fantastic, fascinating exploration of faith and form. It never provoked the emotional heights in me that Fuller’s previous series, “Hannibal”, did, but the specific focus on metafiction and the nature of stories feels more suited to a less emotional, more thought-provoking tone. I give it four and a half dandelions, and an aspect ratio-shattering sword. More (spoiler-y) thoughts below!
There’s a cynical undercurrent running through the show (not just in Laura’s scenes) that makes me wonder about the differences between Gaiman and Fuller’s thoughts on America. Does one version of the story generally like America, and the other generally dislike it? That bigotry, the insanity of the gun-obsessed town in the sixth episode, the way the visuals of the show push the idea of violence as inhumane, it’s a fascinating thing. But even more thought-provoking is the show’s presentation of Mr. World, played extraordinarily well by Crispin Glover. Anansi is a perfectly tricky trickster god, but Loki tricking the gods themselves that he’s really the new world god of “Mr. World” is the best con of the season. Wisely, Ian McShane and Crispin Glover underplay their connection, and the writers refrain from hinting too much at the fact they’re in cahoots.
Loki embodying the slippery nature of “the man”, “globalism”, conspiracy theories, capitalism, the “invisible hand”, the “new world order”, it’s both hilarious and perfect. His idea of “rebranding” the old gods fools his “fellow” new gods just fine, as they seem to never realise they’ve already been fooled by it in the form of Mr. World himself. Mr. World embodying the unknowable, exploiting the idea of patterns that’s even more fundamental than the belief basis of the gods, it’s a brilliant idea extending beyond the already very keenly-observed argument about “religion darwinism” in the finale, where the old and new gods argue over what sort of worship is most meaningful. “Existential crisis aversion” indeed – the new gods may “only” conquer people’s time, the old gods their faith, but Loki understands that beneath all of that is the need for patterns and stories to function as communication in the first place. His silent embodiment of that idea is perhaps an even clearer indication of the show’s creative intentions than Media’s blatant indication of how mediums affect their messages.
I was intrigued by how the writers hinted at many plot twists with abandon. Mr. Wednesday’s identity, for instance, was flat-out revealed in the fifth episode when the new gods offer him an “Odin” missile system, and even before the show began, when the marketing depicted Mr. Wednesday with all the visual trappings of Odin. I think it made sense for the show to play with dramatic irony around his identity, it would have been enormously difficult to effectively hide, and not worth it anyway.
Interestingly, Fuller has been candid on the fact that initially Mr. Wednesday’s identity was revealed in the fourth episode. Fuller and Green judged this to be a bad move, and rushed to scrap parts of the filmed fourth and fifth episodes, reshoot material, reconfigure the season, and so on. This led to not having the budget to filming what was initially planned to be the season finale, the House on the Rock segment of the book that ends the first act in revealing so many old gods and their natures. Retrofitting what was initially planned to be the penultimate episode into a first season finale required a lot of thought (and advice from Gaiman), but ultimately I think worked well enough, though not as neatly or climatically as might have been hoped.
Moving the Odin reveal to the first season finale worked well enough to my mind. What I’m less sure of is the way the Mad Sweeney and Laura subplot positions Odin as a villain much earlier on than the book did. I think dramatic irony based around Odin’s identity works splendidly, but dramatic irony based around his morality threatens to reveal his grand con early, which I do think would be detrimental to the story.
Shadow’s status as a glowing figure of light in Laura’s post-death vision plays into his identity as Baldur nicely (heavily implied in the novel), as do some cheeky lines of Mr. Wednesday’s like “I offer you the worm from my beak, and you look at me like I fucked your mum?”. The promotional image for the season also hinted at Shadow’s identity. Note what letters on the sign are actually lit.
“AMerIcAn GODs”. “AM I A GOD”. As the sign suggests, I’m happy to believe, both in Shadow’s identity, and the success of the series.